DDB's Sonal Dabral on starting your career, choosing an agency and staying curious

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The first in a series of interviews between a young copywriter and a senior creative about making it in the advertising industry

Lalita Salgaokar is a young advertising writer in New York. Creative Class is a recurring column in which she interviews senior creatives about the their professional journey, the state of the industry and how to develop a creative voice. 

Sonal Dabral grew up in North India knowing nothing of the advertising world. But his mind was opened to the creative life after an aunt married an architect--and a pamphlet for Ahmedabad's National Insititute of Design mysteriously fell out of a book he owned. After 5 years working for Lowe in Delhi, he went to Ogilvy Mumbai, where his regional creative director, Neil French, convinced him to give Malaysia a try. From there he went to Singapore before returning to India, where he is now chairman and chief creative officer at DDB Mudra.

I was curious to meet the human being behind the award-winning work for Times of India and Emirates. As he entered the Mudra House in Mumbai for our interview, he wore a wide, radiant smile — a testament that creative careers can be joyful after 20 years in the business.

Lalita Salgaokar: What characteristics do you like to see in a young creative?
Sonal Dabral: I really like when I see that a young creative is truly enjoying the work that he or she’s doing. And that they have interests outside of advertising. Because advertising is the only profession where our learning actually happens outside of the office.

LS: Learning happens outside of the office. How so?
SD: I could become a really good surgeon by spending my life inside an operating theater. But, for me to be a good creative thinker and a good communicator, I need to step out of the office. I need to see more. I need to hear more. I need to feel more. I need to read more. I need to know as much as possible about a subject. All this happens outside of the office.

And the other thing is, it’s important to be a nice person to be with. You should be a happy person. Someone who laughs and finds humor in a difficult situation.

LS: Interesting. So positivity is equally important?
SD: Yes. If you look at advertising creativity or any kind of creativity, it’s a very difficult task because your idea might not have any takers. You yourself might feel it’s shit. So, to be able to crumble that piece of paper and throw it, and get back to work again, you need to have that sense of humor, that joie de vivre.

LS: Our business attracts the best talent. But our talent bank is being challenged by tech startups — because of perks; recognition; and sometimes, money. Do you sense a problem?
SD: Yes. I’ve been trying to tell the younger creatives that we’re currently living in a very fast-moving world with a lot of options.. What that brings is a certain sense of restlessness. People want to succeed faster. They start questioning everything. That sense of restlessness is something I’m sensing from the younger generation. And I keep telling them that restless energy is great, but don’t keep shifting too much.

LS: You mean don’t seek instant gratification?
SD: Yes. Beginning years are more about imbibing and learning as much as possible rather than immediately succeeding. Restlessness can be detrimental to learning. Don’t move just because someone is promising more opportunities or more money. Money and riches come at the right time when you become worthy of them.

LS: How do you pick the right agency?
SD: Find a place where you get to learn as much as possible. Plus, also see if the place can give you opportunities to create work that you enjoy, the work you’ll be able to look at five years from now and be proud of. Ask yourself if you have an environment where you have seniors from whom you can learn, more than a place where you might be the boss but you can’t learn.

LS: You’ve enjoyed some really good mentorship through your career, right?
SD: Absolutely. Right from Piyush Pandey and Neil French to Tham Khai Meng. I continue to learn even from my colleagues and my juniors. There’s so much to learn when you put together a bright team.

LS: What is the most valuable trait in a creative?
SD: Curiosity. If you’re not curious, you’re dead.

LS: Is there something you dislike about our business? Or something that you would change?
SD: The best work happens with clients who are friends, who respect creativity and who respect a different point of view. That’s why I don’t like it when a client starts to see the agency as a supplier; or a vendor; or something that can be easily replaced, like a production house. I think that this attitude never produces good work.

LS: Did you invest a lot in relationships starting out?
SD: Ours is a people business. If you don’t like the face of people, and if you don’t like talking to people, you shouldn’t be in this business. My relationships with clients have never been Machiavellian, they’ve never been with a purpose. When the client enjoys a great idea as much as you do, coming up with great ideas is that much more fun. There are those times that you just click with clients and then you’re looking in the same direction about where you want to take the brand.

LS: And did you handle your career as a brand?
SD: I never planned my career. I never planned I would go overseas. Things just happened.

LS: Is there something you wished someone told you starting out?
SD: I’m a firm believer that there are only two kinds of advertising: The one that speaks to the head — you know, the slickest of ads, which you marvel at. And then there’s communication that talks to the heart. I believe that the ads that you make must talk to the heart. They also have to talk to the head, but if they don’t talk to the heart, then you might as well have not created it.

LS: And do you feel optimistic about the future of advertising?
SD: I’ve never, ever been a pessimist. I’ve always been an optimist. I see hope, and I see good in everything. I believe this is the best time to be in this business. And more than anyone, I want young creatives to feel the same way.


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